Image Provided by System76 (http://system76.com/)
If you are reading this then chances are you already know of System76 and what they provide. If not, here is a quick note about this wonderful company. System76 sells computer hardware for laptops, desktops and servers that is purpose built for the Linux operating system. They allow you to pick from multiple solutions and customize it with the hardware that meets your needs. When you view their site you can see they have a “maker” style fell to bring out the creativity in others. When it comes to the operating system that is pre-installed on their systems they have chosen to go with Ubuntu Desktop or Ubuntu Server. Some of you may be asking why would they go with Ubuntu? The answer to that question is really quite simple. They want to focus their efforts on one distribution. While their hardware can work with other flavors of Linux it prevents having a ludicrous amount of OS choices from the start that may put off the average consumer. What these people are doing could put a dent in Microsoft/Apple and give the consumer a solution that lets them experience what freedom in the computing world is really like .
Now, when the Gazelle system arrived at my front door I was expecting this to be just another system. Right from the start I could see the extra effort that is put into this product starting with the shipping box. The outside is printed with the System76 company name and the internal walls are illustrated with drawings on a graph paper design depicting that “maker” style community that this company relates to. On top of the wonderful packaging you also get a few freebies thrown in as well. You will find in an included envelope some stickers, a Thank You/Welcome note from System76 and something else I will not talk about just to prevent spoiling everything. As for how the laptop and power supply is shipped, it’s the standard tension plastic to keep things firmly secure and safe in transit.
When I ordered this system I choose to go with the Intel i7-6700HQ (4-core, 8-thread) processors. I decided I would upgrade the Memory and add a M.2 NMVe SSD myself later. At the time of this first look review the NVMe SSD has been installed, the original Hard Drive removed and have yet to add the additional Memory. I contacted System76 support to check with them on the finer details before deciding what the M.2 SSD and Memory upgrades would be for compatibility reasons. They were very quick to respond and saved me a return headache since I was planning on going with a DDR3L (low-voltage) upgrade kit only to be informed that the system will not recognize DDR3L. Thanks for that.
Once I unboxed the system I found it to be very light in term of weight. The Gazelle has a “brushed metal” like look on the plastic that is very slick and sharp looking. The plastics used to house the system is good and does not feel overly cheap. I also find it does not attract finger prints very easily which I know is a huge plus for many people. Already after a few days of use it feels like the case will hold up for some time. There is some slight display flex however when applying a torque on the screen housing. It is a minor amount of flex and nothing to be worried about. I do not see this becoming a issue with day to day use. When it comes to heat there is a bit that comes through the touchpad since the WiFi adapter and NVMe SSD drive are right behind it. This is not a negative in my book. It is a thin mobile computer and heat is going to be a factor regardless so I can’t fault them for that. After a good solid look over it was time to get started.
I found the installation of the M.2 SSD, Hard Drive removal and getting the UEFI/BIOS out of secure boot to be extremely easy. When I took the bottom panel off to make the hardware changes I was quite amazed. With most laptop manufactures they make it difficult to change anything. After removing the bottom panel off the Gazelle I was pleased to see everything was right there and very easy to access. Even the CMOS battery was easy to get to and not soldered to the board in any way. Major brownie points there. After the quick hardware swap I was ready to install Ubuntu 16.04.1.
During the install process I decided to configure the OS like I would any of my desktop systems. I did run into a slight issue during the install. When partitioning the SSD I could not get Ubuntu to install with a LUKS encryption filesystem for the life of me. Now I have no idea if this is a software issue on Ubuntu or the System76 hardware. For me at the moment it was not super important. I went through the install process again with just some basic custom options and thats how I am running the system now. Once I booted into the OS for the first time getting the System76 Drive installed is very easy. I added the PPA via the command-line, went through the driver install and rebooted. It is as simple as that. Over the past few days I have been installing software, setting up security, and just making myself at home.
My experience has been great so far. When it comes to the screen itself the brightness level range is solid and has some decent off-angle viewing. While the colors do dim slightly with a minute amount of distortion it’s still perfectly fine for sharing content with others. In terms of the keyboard it took me a little bit of time to get use to. What keyboard doesn’t? While having a backlit keyboard for a system in this price range would be a massive plus, it is something I do not need for my daily computing. However some people may think otherwise. I also tried listening to music via the on-board speakers as well. To me they are a bit dull and the volume levels are decent. If you plan to listen to audio you should be using headphones anyways. For me its about battery savings so on-board speakers are not vital. When it comes to the built-in camera and microphone they are what I expect for a system like this. I did find there is a bit more noise in the microphone feed then I would like. Not sure if this is due to the microphone itself or the sound controller Systme76 has chosen to use but it could be corrected slightly through software.
The WiFi adapter, NVMe SSD speed and CPU performance in this system is very solid. I was worried that the stock cooling system of the Gazelle wouldn’t be able to handle the 8 thread i7-6700HQ at full tilt but it does. The Gazelle does have a little trick to help under high load. When you use the function key in combo with the number 1 key you can override the automatic fan curve and max the fan RPM. With the auto fan curve it will hover around 50 degrees celcus under medium load and about 35-40 degrees with the full RPM override. I highly doubt this is only on the Gazelle so check your systems documentation. As for the WiFi and NVMe drive they do slow down as they become heat soaked over time but not by much. As I said before if the heat starts being an issue, up the speed of the cooler for a few minuets. I got excellent performance for the NVMe SSD. What I went with was a Samsung 256Gb 950 Pro. For a simple synthetic test it achieved an average of 1.2G/sec Write speed and 10.8G/s read speed on a 4Gb file. Keep in mind this is not a real world test but is still very impressive.
So far I am very happy with this system and would like to write more but that will come in the 4 month look back review. The last few things to cover are the price and the average user. In terms of price it’s not the cheapest thing on the market. Ordering the Gazelle with the i7-6700HQ, 2 year Warranty, 3-day rush assembly, tax and shipping came out to about $1,100. Keep in mind this does not include the cost of the 256G NVMe Drive and 16Gb Memory upgrades I am getting for it which comes to about $200 for the drive and about $65 for the Memory. I know price is a huge factor for many so again it’s not cheap but for a virtually flawless experience its been worth it for me personally. As for the average user I could see them having a solid experience but the downside being the cost for entry is a bit high. Now system76 does make cheaper models but again this is the Gazelle we are talking about. The average user will want to order the system how they want it to be from day one to prevent headaches with hardware upgrades in the future.
When it comes to the Gazelle, could I recommend this (or other hardware) to other Linux users or new users in general? I would have to say “maybe”. While the Gazelle is not perfect, it is still a great system and I have enjoyed the experience so far. I require additional use time before I can give a solid answer. The look back review will most likely be out by the end of the year once this semester is over. At that time I will have found any potential problems, the memory will have been upgraded to the full 16Gb, more refinement on the pros/cons and a clear suggestion.
Also I would like to give a shout-out to the people at the System76 Denver Colorado HQ Office. I got the chance to go there and meet them in person and get to use the Gazelle before my purchase. They are amazing people, wonderful atmosphere and welcome people in the area if you would like to stop by. Since their systems are not really carried in big-box stores, they encourage visitors and I highly recommend to stop by.